Ireland’s ‘women in the home’ referendum: a middle-class obsession
If approved, the constitution will be changed to become more 'gender-neutral'
The Irish papers are full of news that a referendum will be set this coming November on Article 41.2 in the Irish constitution. This contains a recognition that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the State shall therefore “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.
The overwhelming consensus from Ireland’s liberal feminist public voices is that this framing is discriminatory against women, and that it’s in women’s interests for it to be amended. Seanad Spokesperson on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Erin McGreehan called the existing phrasing “innately biased against women”, arguing that the sex-specific language in the Irish constitution needs to be amended to recognise “the economic value of unpaid care” in language that’s “gender-neutral”.
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From the perspective of women who have careers, this all sounds great. But it left me wondering: what about all the mothers who have jobs, rather than careers?
I’m relatively unusual, I suppose. As a graduate middle-class woman, I arrived at motherhood in my mid-thirties having been rubbish at every professional career I’d tried my hand at up to that point. This meant that when the usual period of maternity leave came to an end, and my NCT peers mostly went back to work, I couldn’t think of any professional activity I wanted to do keenly enough to warrant spending all day away from my baby.
In this my situation more closely paralleled the great many mothers who work not because they like it and excel at some high-flying occupation, but rather because it’s either that or fall behind on rent. I grew up with the belief that being a stay-at-home mum was infra dig; but when I got there, I was surprised to discover that being in a position where stay-at-home motherhood is an option at all is not a mark of oppression but unusual economic privilege. And for those whose financial situation means they don’t have that privilege, going back to work doesn’t always mean returning to an exciting, varied and challenging professional career. It’s a whole different ball game sending your six-month-old baby to nursery and missing out on milestones so you can put packets through a scanner all day.
I dare say some mothers whose employment prospects mean a job rather than a career might appreciate constitutional protection and recognition for the many ways they might make a valuable contribution to the wider social fabric outside the market. But laws don’t get made or amended by mothers with jobs.
This creates a structural blind spot in the politics of motherhood. For mothers with careers face a much tougher choice. If a woman has worked hard at and enjoys her professional life, swapping that indefinitely for Monkey Music and milk sick on her cardigan may feel less appealing, however visceral your bond with your baby. From that perspective, I can see how a constitutional protection for mothers from being pressured into the workplace would just look like bias against women. And I can see how it might seem like making it ‘gender-neutral’ is generally in women’s interests. Indeed, those mothers who get anywhere near the levers of power are far more likely to come from this class.
Meanwhile, this elite feminist drive to abolish every cultural, political or legal recognition of sex asymmetry lands differently further down the socio-economic scale. Here, Article 41.2 reads more like sex-specific protection against the neoliberal understanding of people as sexless units of economic production: a profoundly humane provision for the unique nature of mothering, and now vanishingly rare in developed-world legislation.
This referendum proposes, in practice, to strip protections from less privileged mothers that serve, in however small a way, to shield them from the brutal, sex-indifferent exigencies of the market. Doing so may well serve the interests and priorities of elite women. But it should not be understood as ‘feminist’ save in the most class-blind sense.
I had 8 great-great-grandmothers born in the 1820’s followed by 4 great-grandmothers, 2 grandmothers, a mother and a wife. I happen to know a lot about these 16 women: none of them had ‘jobs’ or ‘careers’, they had working-class husbands who ensured that they were not ‘obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home‘. Their contributions giving ‘the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved‘ was enormous, colossal … unimaginable nowadays, far in excess of that of their husband’s jobs … and, no ‘mental health’ issues.
“Their contributions …far in excess of that of their husband’s jobs”
And there you have the crux of the problem today.
They could only do their “contribution” at home because their husbands slogged away to provide for the house, and run pretty much every bit of society outside it.
The main issue isn’t that the traditional women’s role is under attack – though that’s definitely a problem – but as the experience with female doctors and part time work in the NHS shows, women are happy enough to do “unpaid labour” when it suits them and where financially possible.
The real issue is the traditional male role of a provider and breadwinner is underappreciated and faces being destroyed. Partly because women will not “marry down”, so the pool of marriageable men drops. But men doing the traditional role is the real “unpaid labour ” – earn money for a house and kids that you are deprived of in a large % of cases at the whim of their partner, or facing constant disparagement in media and society.
Plenty of women would still be happy to take time off work and take care of kids. Problem is, there aren’t going to be any men willing and capable enough to help them do that.
I get your drift. As a younger man I could only see the 16 husbands: all survived being shot at and collected umpteen military medals: farmers, carpenters, marine engineers, fishermen, miners, the salt of the earth. Then, thanks to further research of my family tree, a totally alternative ‘big picture’ emerged. The ‘State’ … I used that word, quoting from the article, to mean ‘citizenry’, ‘the nation’, ‘society’, not a bunch of tax gathering politicians and their civil service. Using that meaning, I concluded that, in the grand team effort, women had been the greatest contributors to the common good.
..this is also true. Both points are valid. They are not mutually exclusive. State recognition of both issues is required and essential family supports should be greatly improved as a vital and obvious investment.
For the record, raising children is actual work – there is no version of taking ‘time off’ for me. I’m on 24/7 and I happen to be married to one of those men. His contributions to our family unit are not taken for granted, nor our mine. It’s a true partnership and we’ve been deliberate to carve out the highest percentage of quality family time we can, which has meant he earns whilst I run it. It goes by fast – there are only so many years to spend with your children. Done right it is a blissful bulwark against the insanity of modern life but it’s increasingly harder to create. Optimistically I have a certain level of faith in Gen Z they really do seem to see through all this bullshit we’ve created.
Those were the days, when all the houses in our semi-rural lane had a mum in them, where we kids could go for emergency first aid or refreshments. And the mums cooked real food, kept their homes clean and tidy, looked after their own babies and helped each other out.
I remember reading, when I was a teenager (mid 60s) that, in the USSR, women had to go back to work soon after their babies were born and put them in state run nurseries. I thought this horrifying.
My mum had 10 children by the time I was 15. She had been a district nurse and midwife after the war, having nursed infectious diseases from its outbreak in 1939, when she was 16. She gave up work to become a full time housewife and mother after her 2nd child was born. That was me.
My mum very possibly had a higher IQ than my dad, but he was no slouch, an ex bomber pilot in the RAF (survived being shot down over Germany) who became a successful house builder. They were magnificent parents.
How tragic it is that the golden childhoods me and my siblings, cousins and neighbouring rascals enjoyed are history. We were semi-feral, field-traipsing, den-making, adventurous and mostly untroubled by grown ups.
I know it’s a sign of age when you think the world’s gone to pot, but today’s children are factory farmed compared to how we were raised.
An interesting observation in Yuval Harari’s (sorry if that’s a misspelling) book was that progress and ‘civilisation’ come at a cost. He talks about the advent of agriculture and how it allowed population growth, settled communities, building and general advancement of the species. But the average person’s life became harder and more labour intensive.
My mum thought bringing up her own children and running an efficient home whilst my dad built and ran a business was superior to any career. She considered it a vocation (she was a devout Catholic).
How very sad that the ‘traditional’ once-prized role of full time wife and mother is being officially consigned to history in the ancestral home of most English Catholic mums.
..as did so many of us; and we (and the state) owe those women and their ilk a great debt of gratitude. Is any career more valuable than that of mother and homemaker? I think not.
Yesterday, the Government of Ireland announced an end to the no-fault evictions ban, which was a response to the housing crisis in Ireland. When questioned, the Minister for Housing admitted the ending of the ban could quite possibly lead to a rise in evictions in the short-term. The next day, the Government announces this new initiative. The attempt to distract the people from the real economic problems facing this country, by way of progressive-sounding baubles, is obvious and cynical. At least in Roman times the poor were distracted with bread and circuses.
Meanwhile, in real life, the country is not able to cope with the paradigm shift from mothers working in the home, to outside: creches and after-school are oversubscribed, and waiting lists are long. The whole sector is run on an institutionalized, for-profit basis, which sets out to “warehouse” children while the parents eke out enough euros to pay for an over-priced semi-D in one of the most overheated property markets in the world.
It is a dangerous path! It not only because it is financially unsustainable for the country but also because the long-term consequences of kids being raised in their formative years by strangers is unknown. I have often wondered whether the reported rise in anxiety among the millennials is down to the rise in divorce and the outsourcing of baby and toddler care to strangers.
Surely we would be better to offer longer maternity cover payments and try to keep house prices low enough that a couple can afford for one parent (almost certainly the mum) to stay at home with the baby until it is ready for school.
Nonsense. Most children are far better in professionally run nurseries, with structured educational play, plenty of outdoor activities and no television, than they are at home either with obese lumps who stick them in front of the television and feed them Gregg’s pasties or with obsessive, middle class helicopter mothers.
The latter, particularly, cause ‘anxiety’ in children.
Really? Stuck in day orphanages where Svetlana and Ngozi spend their days staring at their phones and taking turns to nip out for a cig except for the ten minutes when the parents arrive for pick up?
That is not true. Universal childcare provision in Quebec led to poor socialization of children to school-age and beyond. A large-scale randomized control trial in Tennessee found similar results.
The Lebensborn orphanages were founded on just such a premise. The Nazis were wrong then and it would be wrong now.
Television and Gregg’s pasties never did me any harm
You may be confusing real children with AI or Tomagochi dolls.
Generalizations on either end of this argument are anti-feminist in every possible way. This is such a low IQ statement where does one begin. How about a society that values women’s contributions full-stop – both in and out of the home. Currently the only version of female that’s acceptable is one that competes in the marketplace. All other aspects of female experience are not worthy of consideration. What a sad place we find ourselves. Your comment demonstrates this aptly.
..your point is valid except we don’t have to wait to see the result.. we already know the result and need only look at the current generation! Because the guilty parents bribed them they feel ‘entitled’ and because they lacked constant motherly love they are snowflakes.
We know fine what happens when children are raised by strangers; our Royal family is a century old example.
And all the kids and Kings are all right.
again quite true, but the essence of the case remains valid. While the govt is indeed guilty of trying to distracted us from a more serious issue you are perhaps guilty of trying to distract us from this issue!
Totally correct. We live in Dublin and have 3 small kids and a mortgage. Constant slog to pay for it and childcare
It’s ironic that one thing feminism has never seemed to value is what women do, the things they want to do and the things women do well. it never quite got to grip with valuing women, did it?.
Feminism provides more advantages for men than women.
It’s hilarious that the majority of women fail to recognise this.
Absolutely. In so many ways.
not because they like it and excel at some high-flying occupation, but rather because it’s either that or fall behind on rent.
True for the vast majority of us of both sexes I am afraid
Whoever coin the phrase you can be whatever you want to be wants shooting
But you can, provided you’re willing to pay the price from an early age! Sadly that might mean endless study (no play), losing friends, foregoing motherhood, a lot of brown nosing and joining the Tory party to boot; a price most (wisely) are not willing to pay.
I think you mean Labour party.
Also to be whatever you want you have to have the requisite ability, financially secure and supportive parents, connections and luck
The harder you try the luckier you get.. I managed it without parents (since 16 years old) and little or no financial support. I didn’t attended university until I was 44. I’m not that smart but I’m persistent..
Persistence donalds everything
Back in 2010 I became a stay at home dad because my wife had only began to earn more than I did. Besides I had accomplished most of what I could do in my career without a degree.
In theory a feminist dream. In reality, women are not that happy with stay at home dads. I got a degree while raising our daughter. I thought that I could slot back into the workforce. How wrong was I.
My career is in tatters. I have severe depression yet still manage to mostly mask it from my daughter. My wife is jealous of the time we spend together. We started a company together where I do the lions share of the work but it is still seen as her business.
In theory a feminist dream. Women however don’t actually like it once they have it.
Maybe whoever has been driving feminism over the decades needs to actually think of and speak to women and ask them what they truely want, rather than telling them what they HAVE to want.
Women never know what they want. They only know that whatever it is they haven’t got it and are bloody well going to get it.. if only they knew what is was! The only fulfillment they ever seem to have was as those mothers and homemakers or so it seems to me. There are exceptions of course; I speak in generalities.
And its all your fault
I read this “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and note the sinister and depressing underlying assumption that the individual has a duty to the state and not the other way round.
In that well worn Irish expression when asking for directions, “I wouldn’t be starting from here”.
An acute observation.
On the back of decades of incarcerating “fallen” women within institutions where modern slavery was sanctioned by the state, the residents of Eire should be wary of any statement which conjures “the state” as worthy of their support.
I’d be surprised if that mindset has yet fully evolved into a more compassionate understanding of our humanity. I say this as someone whose paternal grandfather was born in Kilkenny.
Your whataboutery is invalid in this discussion.. however laudable it is on its own merits. The two issues are entirely unrelated to one another.
But surely the State and its individual members (men and women) have a reciprocal duty of mutual support.
What’s interesting about Article 41.2 is that it recognises that whilst States have historically been designed, built, and operated by the men in the society, the efforts of the women in birthing and nurturing new citizens are just as fundamental to the State’s ongoing existence.
In this traditional sense the women have a duty to support the State for which in turn the State has a duty to ensure its men provide for their wives so they can carry out their uniquely gendered task. “Within the home” is code for within the context of the heterosexual family.
Mary Harrington, in her reframing of what Feminism should be is suggesting that if a provision like Article 41.2 weren’t already in the constitution the progressive, feminist thing to do would be to advocate for its inclusion.
Agreed provided you refer to true feminism and not the twisted version that looks down its nose at those wonderful mothers and homemakers that did indeed make an incalculable contribution to the state.
So you think a recognition of a huge contribution is the same as a demand for service? Do you also think the right is left, black is white and up is down?
This issue, as with others in Ireland in recent years has already been decided on by Citizens’ Assembly, which is now standard practice for bypassing democracy. Nobody takes any notice of what’s happening.
Citizen assemblies attract self-serving activists.
Members are selected randomly.
Democracy is in terminal decline.. the politicians ignore the people fir the most part. A Citizens’ Assembly is a small step in a vital effort to restore some semblance of democracy by putting pressure on politicians.
You’re spot on Mary. I would however add that the challenge, privilege and heavy responsibility of raising children and the great talent of homemaking should be lauded, not denigrated.
Sure, the milk sick comes with the ‘profession’ but hey, which career doesn’t have a few down sides? Brown nosing is even less attractive and often part of any career, surely?
In my experience career women eventually come to the conclusion that they’ve missed out and resent (and so want to ridicule) those who choose the better path.
By all means alter the wording if it is out of date but leave the essence intact: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater to gratify the silly.
I’d say the Constitution is biased in favour of women, not against them. That said, can any of our Irish UnHerders tell me whether there are actually any current policies that do indeed endeavour to assist mothers as described, or these days is this part of the Constitution honoured more in the breach than the observance?
Governments or the state tried to support mothers with children allowance, this is a social welfare payment paid to mothers, based on the number of children they have
Single mothers are also top of the list for council or social housing (or they were until recently, refugees may be higher now)
Way back in the 92 election, d**k Spring and the Labour party got a big vote based on the promise to double the children allowance payment. occasionally some politicians will propose reform of the system, I have mixed opinion on it myself
To give you a typically Irish answer: Yes and No! There are indeed many family supports but not enough.
I suppose if women spent far less on fashion clothing and footwear, expensive hairdos, endless make up, manicures, pubs, vodka etc etc they could all afford to stay at home? ..only kidding ..or am I?
It may be better to delete and start again, perhaps combining sub-sections rather than end up with amendments on amendents on amendents.
I DRAW ATTENTION TO THIS EXTRACT FROM MARY’S PIECE – This contains a recognition that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the State shall therefore “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. – HOW, IF THIS VALORISES AND SUPPORTS WHAT WOMEN CHOOSE TO DO, IS IT AGAINST THE INTERESTS OF WOMEN? Could some pone please explain? And what does NTC mean?
Ivan Illich’s 1970s book, Gender, argued that when gender is lost, women will suffer, expecially non-elite women. EVERY MOTHER IS A WORKING MOTHER, don’t you know.
The war on humanity continues. Ideology can only lead to dead ends as ideology is blind to reality. Women are too wonderful to describe as is life itself.
The clause should be removed from the constitution completely; not because of its sexed language but because it is archaic and absurd. All adults have a responsibility to work and contribute financially to society and keep themselves and their children. Their sex is irrelevant. Pressing buttons on domestic appliances and going shopping is not a job.
How sad. So, making a home for a child is “pressing buttons and going shopping.” My mother would have disagreed.
Would it be reasonable to assume that you don’t have children? If you do then I wonder how they feel to be compared to an appliance or a shopping trip.
I don’t think it is your right to tell other people what their responsibilities are. As soon as I was able to step back from full time work I did so that I could join my wife in spending more time in bringing up our children and other real world worthwhile activities.
Creating a sensible next generation who can, amongst other things, tell the difference between a woman and a man is critical and maybe this failure by some parents (partly due to a fixation on career and a ‘proper job’?) is now evident, and damaging to the entire society.
As posted in reply to Caroline’s comment, your querying of whether she has children or not is deplorable, and says more about you than anything else.
Deplorable? How sensitive to a reasonable question about whether a person denigrating being a full time parent is in fact a parent themself.
Also as readers of Mary Harrington’s will know having children changes one, whether male or female.
If course women are more than just a womb and I would have asked the same of a man.
I’ve read Mary Harrington’s articles on Unherd for the past 12 months. Again, you’re making an entirely unjustified assumption – and i use the word advisedly, since the query you made of Caroline is based upon a similar type of prejudice which you’ve now endorsed.
I have several children, and a grandchild, and i support Caroline in her point of view irrespective of whether she has children or not. You should be ashamed not to do so.
..no it isn’t. It’s a perfectly valid question: “Do you have any relevant experience..”. He might also have asked: “Do you have any education or training in child care..”
When someone comments on any issue it is perfectly valid to query their qualifications, academic and/or experiential.
Caroline, i completely support your point of view.
Women are human beings, not just wombs. If they choose to be stay-at-home mothers, and have the wherewithal to do so, that’s great. If they choose to have children, and return to work, that’s great too.
The comment which queries whether you have children or not is deplorable, and yet, not unsurprising.
If you think motherhood in all its complexity and loving care is akin to “being just a womb” one wonders what kind of childhood you had yourself? That’s rhetorical btw.. it’s your own business and yours alone.
..bringing up children is a complex and very responsible vocatiom and requires enormous effort and skill. Keying useless garbage into a laptop is inane, pointless and does little if any good.
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